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By Michael Thornton
4 April 2009All Posts
The horrifying spectacle of grisly carnage in the tiny, spartan bedsitter in Islington, North London, on that August afternoon in 1967, was one that made even hardened policemen turn pale.
Lying in bed, his face caked with dried blood, his head ‘cratered like a burnt candle’, was the body of Joe Orton, the 34-year-old playwright whose anarchic, outrageous and often shocking black comedies had made him the idol of the West End theatre.
The hammer that was used to batter him to death, with nine frenzied blows to his skull, lay above the bed cover on Orton’s chest.
On the floor, naked, his hands, chest and bald head streaked with his victim’s blood, lay the body of Orton’s 41-year-old gay lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who had died within 30 seconds from a massive overdose of Nembutal, pre-deceasing the murdered man by several hours.
Entertaining Mr Sloane, the glittering, dark comedy about love, death and violence, which Orton dedicated to Halliwell, his lover and killer, is once again running in London’s West End in an acclaimed revival starring Oscar-nominated actress Imelda Staunton and Mathew Horne of the television sitcom, Gavin And Stacey.
But for all the critical praise heaped upon the new production, I have resisted going to see it. The life and death of Joe Orton, and his startlingly autobiographical plays, are matters I have steadfastly avoided for four decades.
During all that time, I have been haunted by a dreadful possibility. Was it a disastrous error of judgment on my part that provoked Kenneth Halliwell to commit one of the most terrible murders in recent memory, and to extinguish brutally one of the brightest creative talents the theatre has ever known?
The story begins in London in the Swinging Sixties, in the elegant Belgravia penthouse of the legendary American-born musical star, Dorothy Dickson, an intimate friend of the Royal Family and one of the great beauties of the Broadway and London stage in the years between the two world wars.
After her retirement from the theatre in the mid-1950s, D.D., as her friends called her, transformed herself into an accomplished and discerning hostess. At the parties held in her yellow chartreuse drawing-room in Eaton Square, there would be an eclectic assortment of guests, ranging from the Queen Mother, one of Dorothy’s lifelong friends, to actors, ambassadors, writers and composers.
And it was there, in 1966, that I, then London’s youngest film and theatre critic, first met Joe Orton, whose fourth play, Loot, was attracting packed houses in the West End. Dorothy had been to see it and pronounced herself ‘electrified’ by Orton’s audacious talent.
Joe, brought up on Leicester council estates, the son of a council gardener – ‘I’m from the gutter,’ he would say, ‘and don’t you ever forget it because I won’t’ – seemed conspicuously out of place at the grand glitterati gatherings convened by Dickson, and he made no discernible effort to adjust to his entry into high life.
Yet it was impossible not to like him. Orton was the high priest of tease. Mischievous to the point of being wicked, unscrupulous and utterly amoral, he was a predatory gay who was defiantly ‘out’ long before it was considered safe or fashionable to be so, and also before homosexuality had been decriminalised.
Often clad from head to foot in black leather, Joe revelled in lowlife sleaze, constantly cruising the red-light districts of London in search of anonymous roughtrade sex, returning home to fill his diaries with shocking details of ‘frenzied homosexual saturnalia’ in public lavatories.
He would proposition any attractive male who took his fancy, myself included, regardless of their persuasion. Yet, though many disapproved of his excesses, I never met one who did not like him.
Dickson was charmed and amused by him. Whether she knew that he had been to prison, I have no idea.
Even if she had, it would not have shocked her. Like Orton, she was a free and independent spirit, and would often declare: ‘I am a snob for one thing only – talent’.
But if everyone succumbed to Orton, no one seemed comfortable with his long-time partner, Kenneth Halliwell. A strange, withdrawn man, he camouflaged his baldness with an ill-fitting toupé that perched on top of his head like some antiquated tea-cosy. Dickson was visibly ill-at-ease with him, and treated him distantly.
Peter Willes, the gay television producer who had introduced Orton to Dickson, told Halliwell to his face that he was ‘a middle-aged nonentity’, and berated him for wearing an Old Etonian tie when he had never been to Eton.
Was it my fault?: Theatre critic and friend Michael Thornton had spoken with Orton and Halliwell hours before the tragic events took place
‘You’re just pathetic,’ said Willes. ‘People dislike you enough already. Why make them more angry?’
The homosexual playwright, Sir Terence Rattigan, who put up £3,000 to enable Orton’s first hit, Entertaining Mr Sloane, to transfer to the West End, confessed: ‘I’d have liked to go on seeing Joe, but if I was going to have to see Halliwell too, no, that was too much.’
In fairness to Halliwell, he had had a deeply traumatic upbringing. Born seven years before Orton, into a middle-class background, he was an 11-year-old boy at Wirral Grammar School when his mother was stung by a wasp and choked to death in front of him.
He became ‘introspective and difficult to talk to’. This increased at 23, when he found his father dead with his head in the gas oven. He stepped over the body, turned off the gas, put the kettle on and had his morning tea and shave before reporting the suicide.
In 1951, he and Joe Orton met at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where both proved to be indifferent students. They became struggling actors in provincial repertory, Halliwell in Llandudno, Orton as a humble assistant stage manager in Ipswich.
They also became lovers, though never very satisfactorily, and began living together, eking out a precarious existence on Halliwell’s modest inheritance.
For two years, they both worked at a Cadbury’s chocolate factory and their outgoings were restricted to £5 a week.
It was Halliwell’s money that, in 1959, bought the Islington bedsitter with a roof garden, where both were to die eight years later.
Their attempts at writing, together and alone, met with constant rejection and, in 1962, they were arrested and charged with stealing 72 library books and defacing others, including a volume of poems by John Betjeman, which was returned to Islington library with a new dustjacket featuring a picture of a nearly naked and heavily tattooed middle-aged man.
They were convicted, fined £262 and sent to separate open prisons for six months, from which they were released in September 1962.
They resumed their attempts at writing, with Halliwell, by far the more intelligent and educated of the two, nurturing Orton’s primitive talent like a literary midwife.
Success finally came in 1964 when Orton’s first play, The Ruffian On The Stair, was broadcast on BBC radio, followed by the screening on ITV of his second play, The Good And Faithful Servant, and the West End staging of Entertaining Mr Sloane.
By 1967, when Orton won the Evening Standard Award for Loot, he was a national celebrity, already in demand for TV chat shows. Halliwell, who had achieved nothing in his own right, increasingly appeared a mere appendage.
The more successful Orton became, the more insecure and needy Halliwell seemed. Many suspect that Joe used Ken as the model for the character of Kath, the cloying, clinging landlady in Entertaining Mr Sloane, who admits: ‘I don’t mind about marriage as long as he doesn’t leave me.’
Orton, plainly bored by Halliwell’s repeated threats of suicide – ‘You’ll learn then, won’t you?’ he would say. ‘What will you be like without me?’ – made no attempt to disguise his open interest in me when I was invited to a meal of fishcakes and baked beans in their claustrophobic and creepy Islington bedsitter. I was less concerned by Joe’s overtures than by the fury and resentment in Halliwell’s eyes.
Orton’s sense of humour continued to border on the macabre. At his mother’s funeral, he purloined her false teeth, then took them to the Criterion Theatre, where he suggested they should be used as props in Loot. One of the leading actors, Simon Ward, ‘shook like jelly’ when Orton presented them to him.
As Orton’s promiscuity increased, Halliwell raged: ‘I’m disgusted by all this immorality. Homosexuals disgust me!’ And on a drink and drug-fuelled holiday in Tangier in June 1967, where both had sex with underage boys, Halliwell hit Orton about the head with his fists, told him that his plays were ‘ultimately worthless’, and that they were ‘finished’.
Back in London, it was Dickson who unconsciously became the catalyst in Halliwell’s disintegration. She invited Joe to come alone, without Kenneth, to a grand party at which he was to meet theatrical luminaries such as Vivien Leigh, Emlyn Williams and Harold Pinter.
Orton agreed, but the effect on Halliwell of this exclusion proved so traumatic that even Peter Willes, who loathed him, telephoned Joe in alarm and urged: ‘ Listen, you can’t leave Kenneth and come to the party.’
Dorothy, oblivious, then made plans to invite Orton alone to an even grander party at which he was to meet the Queen Mother. ‘HM would be so amused by Joe,’ she told me, ‘but I really cannot have that other dreadful man present on such an occasion.’
The terrible final chapter in this story is one I have never told before. For 42 years, I have consciously pushed it to the back of my mind.
My diary for Tuesday, August 8, 1967, contains this account: ‘Ran into Joe Orton in the King’s Road. He was as outrageous as ever, sauntering along and quite brazenly eyeing up the male talent as it passed by. “Can’t do anything about it, though,” he grinned. “I’ve got the clap, haven’t I? I’m on my way to see the dick-doc.” Apparently, he has contracted some sexual infection during one of his many wild escapades.’
We had a drink in a nearby pub and he told me he was off to a big meeting on the following day about his film script for The Beatles. ‘Sounds like things are great, Joe,’ I said. ‘Well, they would be,’ he began, ‘if it wasn’t for – there was a long pause and a sigh before he uttered the final word – ‘Kenneth.’
‘What’s wrong with Ken?’ I asked. ‘What’s right with him?’ he countered. ‘He’s on valium, librium, speed, Nembutal and every other pill he can lay hands on. It’s making him unbearable.
‘I know I’ve got to leave him. Everybody’s telling me that. He’s become like an albatross round my neck.’
He looked at me very directly across his glass. ‘To tell you the truth, I’ve met someone else, and we’ve been having an affair. I’ve got to face up to telling Kenneth about this, but I just don’t know how to do it. It might send him over the edge.’
He glanced up at the pub clock and jumped up. ‘I’ve got to run. I’m gonna be late for the doc.’
We walked out of the door into the August heat. He pushed his peaked cap to a jaunty angle and swaggered off down the King’s Road, winking and grinning puckishly back at me over his shoulder.
That was my last sight of him, though it proved to be not quite the last time we spoke to each other.
About three hours later, the telephone rang in my London flat. ‘Mikey?’ Only Orton ever called me that, and I recognised his voice immediately. ‘Hi Joe,’ I said. ‘How did you get on with the doctor?’
‘I’m not ringing about that,’ he said. ‘I need to ask you something. You know that party Dorothy gave for me, and the other one she is planning? Why didn’t she invite Kenneth?’
I hesitated. ‘Joe, you know how grand Dorothy can be. She picks and chooses who she wants at those things.’
‘Yes,’ he persisted, ‘but it’s not very nice to Kenneth, is it? Why doesn’t she want him there? Doesn’t she like him?’
‘I think it’s just that…’ my explanation trailing off in embarrassment.
‘What?’ said the voice at the other end. To my dying day I shall regret what I said next.
‘Well, all she said to me about it is that she finds Ken just a bit… spooky.’
There was an oscillating silence at the other end. Then came a click, and I got the dialling tone. Thinking we had been cut off, I tried several times to call back, but the line was permanently engaged. In the end, I gave it up and had a bath.
When the phone rang again, I heard Joe Orton’s voice once more. This time he sounded angry and agitated.
‘What the hell have you done?’ he shouted. ‘You’ve told Kenneth about Dorothy.’
‘No, I have not,’ I said. ‘I haven’t spoken to Kenneth.’
‘You were speaking to Kenneth,’ he insisted. ‘That was Kenneth who called you.’
‘But it was your voice, Joe,’ I said. ‘It sounded exactly like you.’
‘Yes, he impersonates me to find out what I’ve been saying about him, and what people have been saying to me. Don’t you realise? He’s completely paranoid. Telling him that about Dorothy has sent him off his rocker all over again.’
‘Where is he now?’ I asked. ‘Let me at least speak to him and apologise.’
‘Don’t waste your breath,’ Joe said wearily. ‘He’s gone to the doctor about seeing a shrink, and to get still more anti-depressants.’
Yet the last words he ever spoke to me sounded despairing. ‘Oh God,’ he said, ‘I’m really at the end of my tether.’ And he hung up without saying goodbye.
That night, I went to a lavish dinner party in Mayfair, but I hardly heard a single word that was said to me. My mind was frozen and fixated by my disastrous faux pas over Halliwell and the desperation he must have felt to practise such a bizarre deception.
I later learned from the police that Halliwell had returned from seeing Dr Douglas Ismay, who at once recognised the gravity of his disturbed mental condition.
Ismay telephoned Halliwell at ten o’clock that evening – the last call made to the Islington flat while both he and Orton were alive – to make an appointment for him to see a psychiatrist in two days’ time. But that proved to be too late.
At some time between two and four in the early hours of the morning – less than 12 hours after I had mistaken Kenneth’s voice for Joe’s, and made my fatal admission that Ken was unwelcome at Dorothy’s parties – Halliwell took a hammer and, while Orton slept, bludgeoned his skull. The brain that had conceived some of the most original black comedies of their age was splattered on the walls and ceiling.
Halliwell was found naked in the middle of the room. His hands, chest and head were splashed with Orton’s blood. Near him on the floor was a glass and a can of grapefruit juice with which he had swallowed 22 Nembutal tablets, dying several hours before Orton, whose sheets were still warm when the police arrived.
On the desk was a note in Halliwell’s writing. ‘If you read his diary all will be explained. K.H. PS: Especially the latter part.’
Yet the diary pages for the last week of Orton’s life, in which the police told me I was mentioned, mysteriously vanished. When I asked why, I was told they ‘contained sensitive information about persons still living’.
As news of the murder appeared in giant headlines across the evening papers, a shocked and incredulous Dickson called me to ask the reason for Halliwell’s frenzied attack.
I took the coward’s way out and said I had no idea. I told the same to the police, thereby avoiding being called as a witness at the inquest.
In death, the divisions between the lovers were highlighted. Halliwell’s low-key cremation in Enfield was attended by three relations and Orton’s agent, Peggy Ramsay. Orton’s departure, at Golders Green Crematorium, drew 25 mourners and 70 wreaths. His coffin entered to his favourite song, A Day In The Life, by The Beatles:
‘I read the news today, oh boy
‘About a lucky man who made the grade.’
Orton had made the grade. Halliwell never did. Orton’s plays are still produced worldwide. Halliwell’s only play remained unproduced and his solo novel unpublished, like all three novels that he co-wrote with Orton.
The plaque on the murder house, 25 Noel Road, Islington, is to Orton alone. Halliwell, who considered himself Orton’s muse and creator, is ignored.
Joe’s native Leicester now boasts an Orton Square, but Halliwell’s aspirations have faded into dust. If he is remembered at all today, it is as a mentally unbalanced murderer.
Was his butchering of Joe Orton a crime of passion or an act of frustrated professional jealousy? We shall never know the answer.
As for me, I shall wonder till the day I die whether it was I who inadvertently triggered one of the most sensational and macabre murders of modern times.